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Political seas are changing fast

By Peter McMahon - posted Friday, 11 August 2006


Politics is about to undergo a transformation driven by two basic developments. The first development is the rise of the information society; the second development is the accelerating approach of the global environmental resource crisis. Together, these forces will provide the means and incentive to recreate politics as a flexible, consultative process with profound implications for modern life.

Our political structures are obsolete. In most countries the core political structures were developed in the late 18th, 19th or early 20th centuries when populations were much smaller and dispersed, when representatives could only meet irregularly due to primitive transportation, when communications were much slower, and when the overall knowledge base was much, much less.

These fragile structures failed catastrophically in some countries - perhaps most notably in Russia, Japan, Germany, Italy, and Spain - under the social pressures caused by mass industrial development. The result was the Great Depression and prolonged global war from 1914 to 1945.

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Following the end of the long global war, authoritarian rule either persisted or was established in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, South America and elsewhere, there were a number of fake democracies like Japan, Singapore and South Korea. “Democracy” seemed to be generally on the back foot. However, by the start of the 1990s, the Cold War was over, apparently won by the United States of America; a democratic European Union was taking shape; Japan and South Korea were becoming more liberal; and democracy was stirring in South America.

Most of these changes were due to the collapse of communism as a viable political alternative and the rise of the market society as evidenced by globalisation. Underlying both these events was ever accelerating technological change that made the Soviet system obsolete and revolutionised economic relations.

Meanwhile, in the highly developed United States and the continents of Europe, and Australasia, politics had undergone profound change due in large part to the growing role of the media, especially television. From the late 1970s onwards, this change was given ideological form by the erosion of labour-left ideas and the rise of neo-liberal (in Australia, economic rationalist) notions. Few noticed that these changes increasingly privileged the corporate sector (where the money was) and turned politics into just another profession.

The main change revolved around the reformulation of politics as public relations management. Constant polling gave politicians feedback as to how their stances were going, and more and more they shifted to accommodate these polls. They employed specialist image managers, spin-doctors and the like, who focused on process as the content was increasingly defined within narrow neo-liberal ideological parameters.

In Australia, by the 1980s, when staff levels were rising to accommodate the growing complexity of politics - in particular the need to manage communications and the growing knowledge base - political offices were filling up with media studies and economics graduates. Politicians increasingly thought media profile was all-important, and the only meaningful system of organised knowledge was economics.

This situation - politics as perception management within a broad ideology of market relations - has persisted until now. It resulted in a two-tiered political system with only competent Labor premiers running state governments, and the pragmatic Howard-Costello Government in power at the national level. This combination completely out-manoeuvred the remnant federal Parliamentary wing of the Australian Labor Party, while effectively marginalising variations like the National Party of Australia, the Australian Democrats and One Nation.

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The centrepiece of this political arrangement was the combination of professional media specialist and pragmatic politician. Together they gutted politics of content and progressively excluded the rank and file party membership and the wider community from effective political participation.

This is all about to change. The growing use of new information technology (such as the Internet) to stimulate a new, issues-based kind of politics is at last getting traction. The core issue in such activity is the capacity to actually understand and debate complex, rapidly evolving issues.

The other factor driving change is the arrival on centre stage of the imminent global crisis, with its two main aspects, global warming and oil depletion. These issues have been around for more than 25 years, but they exploded into the public consciousness in 2006 due to both material events (for example, Hurricane Katrina, extreme weather, petrol price rises) and growing debate due to media exposure (for example, Al Gore’s film).

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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